— Flying in National Guard Black Hawk helicopters 500 feet above the bayous and marshes along the Mississippi River delta last week, officials tried to show visiting state lawmakers the benefits of offshore drilling for oil and gas.
The $70 billion industry employs more than 320,000 people in the state. Unemployment rates in some coastal parishes hover around 3.5 percent, compared to 5.5 percent nationally. And the oil industry supports both the only deep-sea oil port in the and a Gulf of Mexico port that handles more vessels than even the .
While states on the east and west coasts debate whether to drill for offshore oil and natural gas, Louisiana and three other Gulf Coast states hold up their offshore drilling operations as proof that they can produce oil and gas without hurting the environment.
Last week, key state lawmakers in those states entered an agreement with oil companies, environmental groups and academic experts to promote environmentally friendly ways of drilling for oil and gas.
Their top concern is restoring coastal wetlands, especially in . The marshes are buffers from hurricanes, homes to exotic species and a base of operations for the oil and gas industries.
“It was interesting seeing the way they developed the oil on the Outer Continental Shelf,” where oil is being drilled in the Gulf, Alaska state Sen. Gary Stevens (R) said after the tour, which was offered to participants in the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual meeting. “It’s good to see they can do it safely and without any damage to the environment.”
, like , has a large fishing industry that could suffer greatly from oil spills, Stevens said.
A 1982 federal law largely prohibits offshore drilling in every state but , , , and parts of and . But with motorists paying around $4 a gallon for gasoline, tapping new sources of energy has become a popular political rallying cry.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said in June states should determine whether to allow drilling off their coasts. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who, like McCain, once supported the federal ban, quickly joined McCain in calling for its repeal. But California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, another Republican, said politicians who say offshore drilling will reduce gas prices were “blowing smoke.”
Schwarzenegger's views are echoed by oilman T. Boone Pickens, who is currently bankrolling a national TV ad campaign promoting wind power and other renewable energy. Pickens says it's a mistake to think that the can drill its way out of its energy crisis.
President Bush also supports overturning the ban and put pressure on Congress July 14 by rescinding an executive order, issued by his father in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in , that also prohibited additional offshore drilling.
Louisiana Senate President Joel T. Chaisson II (D) said his state underscored its commitment to preserving wetlands while allowing oil exploration through the passage of a constitutional amendment in 2006 that dedicates all money the state receives from offshore oil production to coastal restoration. Only after voters passed that amendment — with a record-breaking 82 percent in favor — did Congress agree to share the royalties with the state.
’s oil and gas companies are backing state and federal coastal restoration efforts, too. Erosion endangers pipelines that cross the area, as well as roads and other infrastructure needed to support the industry.
The gradual land loss was apparent during the helicopter tour. Where salt water seeps in, normally bright green land fades to yellow and then brown before it is submerged. Experts say the sea is swallowing a football field’s worth of land every 38 minutes.
Those on tour flew over vast marshland. "It’s as far as you could see in every direction,” said Tennessee Senate President Ron Ramsey (R). “But the pilot showed us the devastation, not only naturally through (Hurricane) Katrina but by manmade canals and manmade means that’s allowing salt water to creep in where fresh water used to be.”
The lawmakers saw new floodgates under construction, the site where a pipeline brings sediment to the depleted marshes and islands formed by discarded Christmas trees from local communities.
But coastal erosion was only one environmental challenge evident during the 200-mile flight July 23.
Earlier that day, ’s worst fuel spill in nearly a decade stopped all river traffic near , halting 100 ships, including coal, grain and oil barges, on the vital transportation artery. The gunk floated on the river in a blotchy purple-and-green film that threatened birds, fish and plant life along the southernmost 100 miles of the waterway.
More than 420,000 gallons of fuel were released into the river, when a tanker collided with a barge transporting the fuel and cut it in half near downtown on July 23, according to federal officials.
Although the spill wasn’t related to offshore operations, it showed how thoroughly the oil and gas industries’ fates are “interlocked” with the health of the environment, said Rochelle Michaud Dugas, director of the state agency that oversees the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, which allows supertankers to unload their oil 18 miles from the coast.
“It is a complex puzzle that no one seems to understand. It seems very simple: Drill. Pump. Get it to the refinery. Get it out to the consumer. It is much more complex,” said Dugas, a top aide to then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) during the devastating 2005 landfall of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
But Chris John, president of Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said the industry’s track record during the 2005 hurricane season that brought Katrina and Rita, two Category 5 hurricanes, to the off-shore sites proved that the industry could protect the environment. The hurricanes destroyed 113 offshore platforms and damaged 447 pipelines, according to the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency overseeing offshore drilling.
“With those two systems coming within two weeks of each other there were no — zero — no significant oil spills on the Outer Continental Shelf. I think that in and of itself proves that the industry can go out and drill, produce and explore in an environmentally sensitive area,” he said.